Campbell University banks future on health care

Nathan Craig, standing, and Brad Christoph take part in a recent osteopathic class at Campbell University's medical campus in Buies Creek. Campbell established a medical school in 2013 and announced the addition of nursing and engineering schools next year.
Nathan Craig, standing, and Brad Christoph take part in a recent osteopathic class at Campbell University's medical campus in Buies Creek. Campbell established a medical school in 2013 and announced the addition of nursing and engineering schools next year.

Thirty miles south of Raleigh in rural Harnett County, a once-sleepy liberal arts college with Baptist beginnings has become a nerve center for 21st century health science education.

Campbell University has dramatically added to its academic lineup to appeal to students bent on careers in science and health care.

In the tiny town of Buies Creek, the pace of change at Campbell has been swift and determined: a physician assistant program in 2011; a medical school in 2013; physical therapy in 2014. In March, Campbell broke ground on a nursing school, and will launch an engineering school next year. Occupational therapy is also coming to Campbell, which got its start in health sciences with a pharmacy school that enrolled its first students in 1986.

Campbell President Jerry Wallace, who will retire this summer, likes to call the growth “progressive revelation.”

“One step added to the other,” Wallace said. “We did plan well, but I must say along the way, we found surprises that we had not anticipated, and that we looked into, and said: We can do this and we should do this, if we can put together a plan to accomplish this in a way that will be credible and that will produce the kind of results that will meet the purpose of Campbell.”

The school’s ambitious moves come at a time of increased competition in higher education, especially among private colleges looking for an edge in recruiting students. The U.S. population of traditional college-aged students is on the decline, according to census data. At the same time, concern about rising college costs has prompted students to flock to educational opportunities they believe will lead directly to jobs. More and more, families are thinking return on investment as they make college decisions.

Health science programs are hot with students and with universities that want more students. Elon University started a School of Health Sciences in 2011, offering physical therapy and physician assistant degrees. High Point University plans to start a pharmacy degree, as Wingate University did in 2003.

“We have seen a huge growth in demand for the health professions,” said David Attis, senior director of academic research for the Education Advisory Board, a Washington-based research and consulting firm. “These are very good paying jobs, so there’s a lot of interest among young people – they want to work in a service profession, but they also want to find a career they think is going to be financially sustainable.”

Campbell officials hope that many undergraduates will want to stay and enroll in one of the new graduate programs. More than half of the school’s pharmacy doctoral students in pharmacy were Campbell undergraduates.

Brittany Hines, 21, of Kinston, who graduated Saturday, plans to take a year off before she pursues a physical therapy degree. Campbell’s program will be among her top choices for grad school.

“I feel like it’s opened a lot of opportunities,” said Hines, an exercise science major.

The new programs have brought attention to a university that she admits she had never heard of until her senior year in high school. “It’s not just a small little private school anymore,” she said. “It’s a growing name.”

A focus on underserved areas

The new health science hub is rising from a flat field next to U.S. 421 in Lillington, less than a mile from the historic Campbell campus, founded in the late 1800s.

Bulldozers are prepping the land for the new nursing school. Next door is the Leon Levine Hall of Medical Sciences – home to the Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine. Inside, students on the top floor are working on cadavers in the anatomy lab.

In a simulated intensive care unit, students are rushing to intubate a robot patient, while a voice from the adjacent control room lends an air of realism, pleading, “Someone, please help me” and “I can’t breathe.” The exercise is videotaped, so that students can review their response to the “emergency.”

In simulation labs, students learn to cope with a stressful situation before they treat humans. The worst outcome, says faculty member Dr. Greg Christiansen, is “a bruised ego.”

This summer, the first cohort of Campbell medical students will begin their work with real patients, as they start their clinical training at five sites: Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Lumberton, Raleigh and Salisbury. About one-third of the class will be in Lumberton, a poor and underserved area.

Osteopathic doctors make up a small segment of U.S. doctors. They have the same privileges as doctors of medicine to diagnose patients, prescribe medication and practice in specialties such as surgery, cardiology and emergency medicine. But they generally have a philosophy that embraces holistic care and hands-on treatment, with an emphasis on the musculoskeletal system.

A majority of osteopathic doctors go into primary care, as Campbell officials are quick to point out.

Dr. John Kauffman, dean of the medical school, said he hopes Campbell students will ultimately settle in the underserved areas where they train.

“We’re very excited about that,” Kauffman said, “and how it will change the face of medicine, especially in the eastern part of the state over time.”

In North Carolina, Kauffman said, there are 20 counties without a general surgeon, 20 without an obstetrician and 20 without a pediatrician.

In establishing new programs, universities often cite projected shortages in health care professionals, but some experts believe the predictions are overblown.

“I don’t see shortages looming, and in fact if you look at our supply and our pipeline of folks who are training in say, pharmacy, (physician assistant), (nurse practitioner) and nursing, we may be in danger of overshooting,” said Erin Fraher, of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Cecil B. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

A larger concern is adequately preparing people for new roles in health care and training in community settings as opposed to hospitals, she said.

Campbell’s focus on rural communities, Fraher said, “may bode very well for increasing the distribution of our health workforce.”

Attracting more undergrads

The idea for Campbell’s medical school can be traced to early 2010, when Wallace was asked to serve on an accrediting team to review a proposal for an osteopathic medical school at William Carey University in Mississippi.

Wallace was more than skeptical. “I thought, I’m going but I have a huge bias,” he said. “There is no way in the world they can do this.”

But once in Mississippi, he was thoroughly convinced and couldn’t wait to get back to Buies Creek, where he began to call on trustees and donors.

He set about raising $30 million to go toward the building, and the school opened, astonishingly, in three years. Campbell moved quickly, fearing competition.

“The tide was in for us,” Wallace said. “I was convinced that were we not to move and seize this opportunity, that somebody else would do it.”

Campbell had acted with that kind of urgency in 2009 when it moved the university’s law school to Raleigh, in the process pre-empting the establishment of another school in the Capital City.

Wallace really traces the new medical school to Campbell’s pharmacy school in the mid-1980s. Campbell’s enrollment had slid steadily to only 1,600 by then. The trend began to turn around shortly after pharmacy was added.

The school’s success was undeniable as students posted a 100 percent pass rate on board exams the first year, Wallace said. In the past three years, pharmacy pass rates ranged from 93 percent to 99 percent. Similarly, Campbell law graduates always rank first or second in the state in bar passage rates, and the first two classes of physician assistants passed their exams at 88 percent and 97 percent.

“We have a strong work ethic here,” Wallace said.

Not only had pharmacy enticed more students to Campbell, it began to change the school’s culture.

“It attracted a different student to Campbell,” he said. “It attracted people who got excited over chemistry and biology and calculus. The sciences. It literally elevated our undergraduate program.”

Campbell has not had a reputation as a selective university. In 2013, according to federal data, almost 70 percent of applicants were offered admission. Average SAT scores have crept up in the past decade from 980 to 1030, according to the university.

As with pharmacy 30 years ago, the new health science push is apparently luring more undergraduates. Campbell is on track to have its largest incoming freshman class this fall – about 1,200 students. The increase is largely driven by nursing. The university is projecting more than 1,300 in next year’s freshman class when engineering starts.

That shows that the strategy may be working. “The offerings have made (Campbell) much easier to sell,” said Jason Hall, assistant vice president for admissions.

Rising costs

Along with the new programs and the sleek health facilities, the university spruced up the main campus, removing run-down houses and mobile homes. In the last decade, the campus has opened a sports arena and a new chapel.

The changes haven’t come without a price. Campbell has spent $160 million on buildings and campus improvements in the last dozen years, including $58 million in borrowing, said Jim Roberts, vice president for business. The university’s operating budget, which will reach nearly $300 million this year, has more than doubled in the last decade, he said.

The price of attendance has climbed, too, by 30 percent during the past five years. Tuition, fees, room and board next year for undergraduates will be about $39,000.

The new programs require startup costs, Roberts said, but have to be self-sustaining through tuition revenue.

“Our goal is to have all of these new programs that we start have a black bottom line,” he said. “They have to stand on their own, because if they don’t, then we can’t keep them operating.”

The tuition bumps were necessary, said Mark Hammond, vice president for academic affairs and provost. Before, Campbell’s price tag was toward the low end among North Carolina’s private colleges. Now, it’s the middle of the pack, he said.

“We have crept up intentionally because there is this matter of with whom you associate by cost,” Hammond said. “We want to associate with similar institutions.”

Competitive pressures have also prompted changes in student life. A full-service Starbucks in the renovated library is favorite new gathering spot. And something else new came to Campbell in 2013: Greek Life. By fall there should be four fraternities and three sororities on the dry campus.

Campbell split from the Baptist State Convention in 2008, giving it autonomy to choose trustees without input from the church. But the university has retained informal ties to Baptist groups, as well as its overall Christian focus.

Voluntary Sunday night worship services are held, and students are required to attend a for-credit class called “Connections” that includes worship and religious content. About one-third of students identify as Baptists, and nearly half say they are Christian.

All of the degree additions and campus upgrades are part of staying relevant while holding true to tradition, says Hall, the admissions administrator and a 1998 Campbell graduate.

“Now it’s a matter of competition,” Hall said. “If you don’t grow, you die.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559;

Twitter: @janestancill

Campbell University

Founded: 1887 as Buies Creek Academy by James Archibald Campbell, a Baptist minister

Locations: Buies Creek (main campus), Raleigh (law school) plus satellite campuses in Research Triangle Park, at Camp Lejeune and at Fort Bragg

Academics: More than 100 degree programs.

Enrollment (fall 2014): 6,100, including about 4,300 undergraduates and 1,800 graduate and professional students

Student body (2014): 84 percent from North Carolina; 61 percent white, 16 percent African-American, 6 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian

Freshman profile (fall 2015): Average high school GPA is 3.86; average combined reading and math SAT score is 1030; average ACT score is 22.

Six-year graduation rate: 51 percent

Athletics: NCAA Division I; 21 sports programs that compete in four different conferences

Nickname: Fighting Camels

Mascot: Gaylord the Camel

School colors: Orange and black

Notable alumni: Playwright Paul Green; Major League Baseball players and Cy Young award winners Jim Perry and Gaylord Perry; former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge; N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (law school)

Motto: Ad Astra per Aspera (“To the stars through difficulties”)